How are These Seats Filled?

by Chua Jun Yan (13A01A)

From putting together Take 5 to managing the Hodge Lodge, it is undeniable that the Student’s Council plays an integral role in the lifeblood of the college. For that, this newspaper takes its hat off to the Year 6 Councillors who leave office today and sends its best wishes to their Year 5 successors. To continue leading the way, however, the election process for the Council is in need of reform.

In effect, this year’s elections seemed to be more of a popularity contest than anything else; an instance where style prevails over substance. No doubt, this is a challenge faced in every any election, much less one in a school of 17- and 18-year-olds. In this case, however, the present electoral system could be tweaked to promote meaningful attempts at genuine discourse on real-life issues facing the student body.

First, candidates could be allowed to choose their own running mates, rather than being arbitrarily sorted into groups and forced to campaign together. Ostensibly, the purpose of the current system is to prevent the clustering of RI, RGS and Joint Admission Exercise (JAE) candidates. However, this is problematic. Nominees are compelled to work together, even if they may not necessarily share the same vision or set of beliefs. Hence, nominees cannot run on their own platforms and must compromise with their partners, leading to heavily watered-down campaigns. As such, many campaigns end up reduced to a series of humourous slogans which entertain but do not inform. Of course, no one expects concrete campaign promises, but perhaps candidates could provide an outline of what issues they care for, what their vision for the school is, and where they stand on their philosophy of leadership. Generic platitudes like “creating a fun environment” or “bonding friends” do not quite cut it. Faced with such a situation, the voter is likely to simply cast his ballot for who is more sensational or who he knows, rather than who is best for the job.

An even more awkward arrangement is the presidential election, in which the 3 candidates are running against each other, but campaign on the same platform, sharing speeches and posters. The official reason for this is to project a united front. However, the point of elections is to offer voters alternatives by differentiating candidates. Rather than avoiding head-to-head debate, our community ought to be mature enough to close ranks and resolve our differences post-election. This could help reverse the trend of the minority gender candidate winning over the past 5 years, which could be indicative that voters cast their ballots along gender lines (for instance, if there are 2 female candidates, the RGS vote would be split between them, paving the way for the male candidate to consolidate this support base from his former RI Yr 1 – 4 batchmates).

The above situation is compounded by the short campaign period given to candidates – three days for the Council nominees, and a day for the presidential and house captain candidates. Under such a tight deadline, the average student barely has time to find out about who he is voting for, and the campaigns are understandably rushed jobs.             While last-minute work is a reality that councillors will have to confront, a longer campaign would do justice to the ideas and messages which the nominees have to present.

Perhaps most significantly, the questions posed by outgoing House EXCOs during house meetings need to set a more serious tone. At times, they come across as trivial or contrived, with some candidates reportedly being barraged with queries like “What food represents you” or “What animal represents this house?”  Moreover, it is certainly a democratic aberration that nominees only get to deliver speeches to their own houses, despite being elected by the entire electorate. Moving election speeches to morning assembly, when the whole school is present, might do the trick. Lifting the ban on social media campaigning would also make candidates more visible to the student body. This might result in more “spam”, but as evidenced by last year’s General Election in Singapore, Facebook and Twitter is a tide that needs to be harnessed, not resisted.

Of course, none of this detracts from the work which past and present Councillors have put into making the organization a success. To live up to its hard-earned name, however, this newspaper believes that electoral reform is the way to go.

10 thoughts on “How are These Seats Filled?”

  1. I would like to point out the assumption in paragraph three that cooperation leads to compromise, and that compromise leads to “watered-down campaigns”. Having seen elections in previous years arguably skewed against JAE nominees by RP candidates who form teams and begin planning for their campaigns long before the JAE students have a chance to do so, and with little corresponding increase in the informatory aspect, it is difficult to understand why the writer would advocate this practice. While I agree fully that the “generic platitudes” like those the writer named “do not quite cut it”, this can hardly be attributed to the electoral system. The platitudes, after all, are created by the nominees themselves.

    With regards to your point in paragraph four about the Presidential candidates, it is also unclear why allowing the 3 candidates to campaign on separate platforms would change the fact that “voters cast their ballots along gender lines”. Having two boys and a girl who appear in different posters and videos cannot be expected to automatically produce a different result from having the same two boys and a girl appearing in the same poster and video. The question, I believe, we should all be asking is whether the electorate is mature enough to discern which among the three Presidents (who will all serve as either President or Vice-President of the Council anyway) is best suited for the role.

    In spite of the above points, I would like to commend the writer for raising this rarely-discussed topic as a point of debate. As an outgoing Councilor, there are also many areas in the report which I agree with (though my views, of course, cannot be taken to represent the entire Council), and I would like to add my voice to the author’s in wishing nothing less than the best for the 32nd Council, on top of many improvements in the years to come.

  2. Okay guys. I’m not as eloquent as anyone above and I just talked with Jun Yan and just kinda wanted to(I’m like desecrating press standard English) let everyone know what we went through. So uh, I asked a quesiton regarding food, and animals. And yes, I am very much an avid fan or fine cuisine and wildlife conservation.

    So anyway,here what we FB messaged(because Junyan is in BW)
    I asked that question for house capts because I see house capt as more than just a job you do well in a managing position. I think the first round of serious questioning(in a sense)
    achieved that and let the people sieve out who they think can do work or not.
    But a house captain is a figurehead, a personality, but not in a I Naishad or a CCAD head way
    but in a
    I AM HOUSE YAY FUN WAY
    cuz as house we dont actually lead, but we serve by providing avenues for fun and then we let non councilors lead at house venues as OGLs and House Comms.
    and thats our contribution
    so I was thinking since that is part of the job scope, like creating a fun atmosphere under house
    test their spontaneity and humour and let the House decide if this person can be spontaneous as the job sometimes demands.

    so yeah.
    thanks for reading guys :D

  3. I have two key points that I would like to raise, adding on to Theophilus’ points.

    Firstly, there are two reasons why campaignees only speak to members of their own house. One is because 8 of those elected will emerge as House Directorate members, who will affect the how the house is run and how house events go. It makes perfect sense that out of everyone else, their own house members get to hear their speeches to vote wisely. The other reason is a practical issue. It would simply take too much time for ALL campaignees to even have 1 minute to speak to ALL the students in the school. This would require morning announcements to extend by 5-10 minutes each day, running for 20 or so days. In fact, some mornings (like Mondays) don’t have assemblies. And other times, it rains. This not only makes teachers complain, but for an extended period of 4-5 weeks. Another possible way is to use an assembly block. But currently, that’s already what’s happening. It already takes an entire assembly block to listen to the campaigns of one’s own house members. We would need FIVE assembly blocks (five weeks) in order to listen to all of them speak.

    Secondly, the reason why the election seems more like a popularity contest which features style over substance is not so much the way the election is run. In fact, you suggested the use of social media – that would probably not only increase “spam” but would rather encourage more style than substance. The root cause lies behind how friends feel obligated to vote for their friends, not just because of friendship, but also because of trust. Unlike in a General Election, where for the majority, the candidates are all people you hardly know in person, this election proves otherwise. This makes the election more “personal” and sincere (nothing to do with popularity). But honestly, no matter how the elections process may change, the ultimate result will be students voting for their friends – that is a 100% guarantee, or at least until there is some form of mutual understanding and change in mindsets of the electorate (but that is unlikely to happen). Most students already know who to vote for, some have trouble deciding friends of others, but few will vote for people they don’t know, and hence don’t trust as much.

    Lastly, because of my second point, the issue of having the minority gender candidate winning in the president’s election cannot be easily solved. Right now, the only way to possibly solve this is to either increase the number of presidents to four and necessitate a 1:1 gender ratio, or tweak the voting system such that the student population votes for 2 candidates out of 3 rather than 1 out of 3. After voting out 1 candidate, then do a re-vote with the remaining two candidates. But the way I see it, neither of these solutions seems feasible because it causes many other problems (such as those associated with a gender quota, and being bad to the 1 candidate being kicked out).

    1. 1. Nevertheless, the fact that it is a practical problem doesn’t make it any less true that because councillors are going to serve the whole school, having only one house to be able to see their platform makes it a democratic aberration. So it shouldn’t be dodged behind practical concerns – maybe a smaller intake?

      2. Doubt that the style over substance problem should be blamed on an uninformed electorate. In fact it would not be wise to give up and say no matter how the process is changed it will be a popularity contest – so you are agreeing council elections are just that then? I do agree that allowing chosen running mates and a focus on platforms, not campaigns (I understand nominees are guided by seniors who can make this more clear) will allow this.

      3. While it might be bad to the 1 candidate being kicked out, again that is not a good enough reason to just allow a gender ratio problem to continue. Perhaps the separate campaigns could make this easier, or the 1:1 gender ratio suggestion. I believe we should be mature enough to move on despite whatever feeling of “badness” that might come about.

      1. Hi clement,

        Just to clarify I think that Wei Jun’s first point was meant simply to explain why the case is like that in the first place, not using it as a means to justify the present system.

        The popularity contest issue is not the main problem, I feel. Everything is, after all, based on one’s “popularity” (in the loose sense of the word). What is the real problem is that the substance part is not emphasized enough due to the lack of opportunities for campaignees to demonstrate that substance (one speech is hardly enough). It’s not about “educating” an uninformed electorate, but I agree that it is more about increasing engagement by focusing more on coming up with more platforms that can help the electorate get to know the campaignees better. As it stands currently, it’s just publicity tools, speeches and post-speech booths.

  4. Jun Yan,

    Excellent piece regarding the possibilities for reform in the Student Council elections. I would like to share my views below.

    “As such, many campaigns end up reduced to a series of humourous slogans which entertain but do not inform. Of course, no one expects concrete campaign promises, but perhaps candidates could provide an outline of what issues they care for, what their vision for the school is, and where they stand on their philosophy of leadership.”

    There’s really nothing much to talk about other than “Politically Correct” clichés. And remember, any student who dares to put forward a philosophy of leadership differing from the standard (and vague) brand promoted by the school will face a great backslash from teachers and the administration. Its bad PR after all.

    “Generic platitudes like “creating a fun environment” or “bonding friends” do not quite cut it.”

    There will be nothing more than what you have mentioned unless a spirit of activism is injected into the Student Council. This seems unlikely given the culture of “promoting fun” and “organizing fun stuff”.

    “An even more awkward arrangement is the presidential election, in which the 3 candidates are running against each other, but campaign on the same platform, sharing speeches and posters. The official reason for this is to project a united front. However, the point of elections is to offer voters alternatives by differentiating candidates. Rather than avoiding head-to-head debate, our community ought to be mature enough to close ranks and resolve our differences post-election.”

    I was unaware of this change until recently. The idea of “complete harmony among leaders” is an illusion and brought something to my mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Front_(PRC)

    Agreeing to disagree is the most precious quality of a democratic system and it is disappointing to see how this has been ignored.

    “Moreover, it is certainly a democratic aberration that nominees only get to deliver speeches to their own houses, despite being elected by the entire electorate.”

    Elections in RI have never been about teaching the value of democracy or the rights of citizens. They have either been farcical (including an emergency over-ride of the results by teachers) or superficial (promoting things like “fun” as you have noted earlier). The aim is not to encourage student democracy, but rather, to follow the development of society outside RI as a show of “progressiveness”. The democratic tradition is treated almost condescendingly, completely unbefitting of a school which styles itself as an institute which nurtures young leaders for the future.

  5. Good job guys, keep the discussion going! :-)))))))) <– my interested face as I read all your interesting comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s